James Cash Penney wasn’t a Nebraskan, and he started his famous retail franchise in Wyoming, but he opened stores in more than fifty Nebraska towns. No merchant before or since has come close to that mark. David Delbert Kruger tells the story in “Main Street Empire: J. C. Penney in Nebraska” in the Summer 2011 issue of Nebraska History.
“For me, innately, cities were places to keep away from,” Penney wrote. “Small towns were where I was at home.” For many years, J. C. Penney locations were small, storefront operations that carried merchandise geared toward the needs of a rural population.
True to his middle name, Penney was “philosophically opposed to selling merchandise on credit, and currency was seldom exchanged or kept on the main sales floor,” Kruger writes.
Thus, when customers purchased items from J. C. Penney stores with balconies—such as stores in Albion, Falls City, Fremont, Kearney, or Scottsbluff—the sales clerk would take the customer’s money and place it with a bill of sale, inside a closed container attached to a cable line. The container would then be cabled up to the balcony overlooking the sales floor, where another associate would retrieve the cash before sending the container back down with a receipt and correct change. These cable cash conveyor systems remained in place until secure cash registers made them obsolete.
By the 1950s, the franchise was operating large-scale stores in Omaha and Lincoln, but only in the 1960s and ’70s did it evolve into the shopping mall anchor that we’re familiar with today. Penney himself continued to work five days a week in his New York office until his death at age ninety-five in 1971.
—David Bristow, Associate Director for Research and Publications